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Here's What You Should Know About the Jewish Holiday of Purim

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Purim is a joyful Jewish holiday that is celebrated in the spring. Purim traditions include dressing in costumes, giving and receiving gift baskets, and re-enacting the story of Purim from the Book of Esther, or Megillat Esther. It commemorates the Jewish people's salvation following a plot to massacre them during the time of the Persian Empire.

So, what is Purim? In the Biblical story, the covertly Jewish Queen Esther comes up with a crafty plan to help save her people from Haman, an advisor to her husband, King Achashverosh. Her valiant idea results in the Jews’ triumphant salvation and a sentence of death for Haman. And that's the outcome Jewish people celebrate each year on Purim, which takes place during the month of Adar on the Jewish calendar.

“Not only is Purim a time of joy, but we are commanded to increase our happiness and joy throughout the entire Hebrew month of Adar,” says Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman, Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Israel of the City of New York. “All of our customs, traditions, and mitzvot (commandments) surrounding this holiday aim to create an electric and frenetic energy that pulses through our sacred spaces.”

Jewish people around the world observe the holiday by telling and hearing the story of Purim, distributing Purim gifts of food and drink to loved ones, giving charity to those in need, and partaking in a festive meal. Purim is often celebrated with parades, carnivals, and festivals, with kids dressing up in Purim costumes to add to the fun.

What is Purim?

In the Biblical story, Queen Esther conceals her Judaism as the wife of the Persian King Achaverosh. Her cousin Mordechai uncovers a plot to kill the king and, as a loyal subject, he shares what he knows. But he doesn’t bow to the king’s most powerful advisor, Haman, who consequently wants to destroy all the Jews in the empire.

Mordechai turns to Queen Esther to save her people, and she comes up with a plan of her own. She invites the king and Haman to two banquets. During the second, she reveals both that she is Jewish and that she knows Haman wants to massacre the Jews. With Queen Esther’s brave revelations, she thwarts the plot and saves the Jewish people. The king punishes Haman with death and appoints Mordechai in his place.

How is Purim celebrated?

Purim is based on four commandments:

  • Megillah: Hearing the Purim story

  • Mishloach manot: Sending gifts of food and drink

  • Matanot le-evyonim: Giving to the needy

  • Se'udat Purim: A festive meal

“This most festive and joyous of holidays is one that children and adults await with giddy anticipation,” Rabbi Buyer-Witman says. “We dress in costumes, there is an abundance of food, singing, dancing, and theatrical performances as we re-enact the story of Purim in the Book of Esther, and festive carnivals for the community to gather and celebrate together.”

She notes that even our charitable giving during this holiday is meant to inspire joy. “One of our commandments is to give food to the hungry, as nothing sparks greater joy than bringing happiness to those who need it most.”

traditional hamantaschen cookies for the jewish festival of purim
blueenayim - Getty Images

Purim celebrations often include a three-sided, filled pastry known as hamantaschen, or oznei haman in Hebrew. The triangular shape symbolizes Haman’s hat, and eating it symbolizes destroying his memory.

When is Purim?

This year, Purim begins the evening of Saturday, March 23, 2024 and continues through the following evening, Sunday, March 24, 2024. (Conveniently, this year, it falls on a weekend, which is when celebrations around Purim are typically held in the U.S. anyway.)

young jewish girl giving mishloach manot a purim basket on purim holiday
Rafael Ben-Ari - Getty Images

Why is Purim important?

Rabbi Buyer-Witman explains that the Jewish people are commanded to celebrate joyfully because “we are celebrating our triumphant and miraculous victory over an antisemitic plot to destroy our people… You defeat fear by joy.”

In 2024 — in the wake of the October 7 attacks on the Jewish people in Israel — Purim has a particular resonance, the rabbi explains.

“This year, in the wake of October 7 and the ongoing war against Hamas, this story seems more important and informative than ever,” Rabbi Buyer-Witman says. “Once again there are those calling us to face the unthinkable and listen to the rally cries shouting for our destruction. Yet Judaism insists we don’t cower in the shadows or succumb to the grief we are all experiencing. We defeat fear with joy; we fight back with pride and celebration.”

Purim is important, she says, to “remind us of the darkness and evil that lives in the hearts of some, but, more importantly, of our obligation to heal what is broken, and to celebrate the blessing of this ancient tradition, so relevant thousands of years later.”

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